I have been commuting by air to work for nearly nine months now and I though it would be an excellent time to share some of the ins and outs of getting to work by airplane. I remember when I first started commuting: The confusion and funny looks you get form gate agents, missing flights and ending up hundred of miles form where you meant to go, having disgruntled captains start conversations about industry politics while your just trying to figure out how to unlock the jumpseat, the list goes on. Frank Abagnale, famous con artist and author of “Catch me if you can”, was nearly caught trying to get a jumpseat on an airliner because of the weird lingo and strange procedures. Even after nine months, I am by no means an expert commuter. I have however gained enough information to get where I need to most of the time. If you are a pilot just thrown into the world of commuting I’m sure this information will be helpful. Even if you are not a pilot, this post sheds some interesting light on this strange lifestyle.
Due to the size of this topic, I broke this post up into two easily digestible posts. The first post goes into the reasons, rules, and logistics of commuting. The second post available next week discusses jumpseat chivalry and how to deal with getting stuck. Enjoy!
Why pilots choose to commute
Im sure you are thinking: Why would someone choose to live hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from where they work? There are a couple of common reasons. For example, they may have family in a different city, already have a house in a different city, or they simply don’t like the city where they work.
For pilots just starting out in the industry however, one reason above all others is most common: Money. Most airlines have bases or hubs in some of the most expensive cities in the country. New York, Chicago, Miami, and Los Angeles are bases that are common among many different airlines. The cost of living in these cities is comically higher than someone on a first year salary at a regional airline makes. This means that many pilots are forced to commute from cities where the cost of living is cheaper. So, for many fledgling aviations, commuting isn’t so much of a choice as it is a necessity.
The logistics of commuting
Believe it or not, the logistics of commuting by air are actually fairly sound. Here’s how:
- First, pilots do not have to go through the same hassle at security that regular passengers do. Pilots can use a special ID to go through a security system that verifies their identity. This usually means no lines, X-ray machines, or body scanners. It also means that there isn’t much need to show up at the airport two hours early.
- The flying public typically buys a ticket two weeks in advance. This ticket is good for one airline, and one flight departing at a specific time. Pilots don’t buy tickets. A system called CASS allows security cleared pilots to ride on nearly any airline, assuming there is a seat available (more on this fun topic to come). This means that a pilot’s “ticket” doesn’t come from CheapOair, but from their knowledge of the airline system. It also means a pilot has more options to get somewhere than a ticketed passenger when S*!% hits the fan and flights start to get cancelled.
- Flying on CASS is completely free. Even on international flights, pilots only have to pay entry tax, which is usually around 30 dollars. This means commuting makes sense financially, which pilots love. In theory, although I both pity and envy someone in this situation, it is possible to commute from Tokyo to Los Angeles for around 30 bucks a leg. Driving on the other hand is not free… You have to pay gas!
- A pilot does not go to work every day like a normal person (yeah, we are not normal). A typical work schedule for a pilot consists of three to five trips a month lasting three to five days each. This means a pilot will only have to commute to work and back about four times a month. Here’s a comparison of the time spent commuting per month for a pilot and a typical 9-5 worker:
So theoretically, the average pilot spends less time commuting per month than the average worker. (of course, this chart doesn’t take into account getting stuck ha! =) )
A short how-to guide
On day one of initial pilot training, a brand new pilot gets blessed with an airline ID and gets put into the CASS system. This magically transforms them from a normal terrestrial bound citizen of the ground to a knight of the air who can travel anywhere they so feel in the world! What they don’t get is someone to tell them how to do this… This means that beginning pilots like myself were thrown into this new world to figure things out. A book could be written on this topic alone. I really didn’t want to write a book, so I summarized the key points I have learned below.
Before embarking on your first jumpseat adventure perform the following three things:
1. Equip yourself with the correct tools: Traveling with CASS is nearly impossible without a smart phone. It can be done without one, but you WILL get stuck more often. Remember, knowledge is power. Here are the key apps/ websites you will need:
- passrider.com (website)- Used to check aircraft routing. This website allows you to see nearly all scheduled airline departures in the world. Remember, you can ride on any airline and can do interline travel (travel using legs on different carriers). Use the widget on the home page, choose “All Airlines” and select All Flights”.
- FlightAware (App)- Used to check flight status and routing. This gives you an idea of delays at hubs and allows you to check the status of the flight you are looking to catch.
- aviationweather.gov (website)- Remember your weather classes? Weather dramatically affects you as jumpseater. Summer thunderstorms and winter snowstorms can completely shut down the northeast. The good news is that if you are commuting and can’t get in due to weather, the flight you are working is probably delayed or cancelled anyway.
- Your company’s non-rev website/app- This is used to check loads (how full the flight is). The problem is that you can only check loads on your company’s flights. This means if you fly for a Delta carrier, you won’t have any idea how full a JetBlue flight is. The good news is you can always ride in that extra first class seat in the cockpit, the almighty jumpseat!… unless that’s taken too.
2. Learn how to list on different carriers: Listing is equivalent to a passenger buying a ticket. You can’t just walk through the gate, wave to the ticket agent, and hop on the flight. You first have to be put into the computer system. This adds you to the weight and balance and includes you in the passenger count. Sounds easy enough right? Eh… Listing for a flight is somewhat confusing because the “procedure” for doing it varies from carrier to carrier. When I first started I was denied boarding on a few different carriers because I didn’t know how to list on them (hey, no one told me remember?). Here are the procedures for listing on some of the most common carriers:
- Default procedure: (Usually works for Delta, American, United) The default procedure for listing for a flight if the carrier does not have a special procedure, or if you don’t know their procedure and figure its worth a shot to try things out and hope for the best, is to check in at the GATE. Have your passport and company ID ready and walk up to the gate agent for the flight you are looking to list on. They must be working the flight your are looking to ride on. Typically, a gate agent won’t be working your flight until 45 minutes prior to departure. You cannot be listed for a flight if you are arrive later than 15 minutes prior to departure. Tell the agent you would like to list for the jumpseat. They may or may not know what this is. If they don’t know, say you want to be CASSed. If they don’t know what that is… get creative. Don’t worry, most agents are great and know whats going on 97% of the time. Newer agents might get a little confused, just be ready. Big airports are usually fine. At small airports,the agents may only see one or two jumpseaters a week.
- They will ask for your airline code if they don’t know it… Make sure you do. This is a 2 letter code that identifies you in their computer system. If everything checks out, you will get a jumpseat pass.
- Your own carrier: If you are riding on your own carrier, list on the flight through your company’s non-rev website/app. You usually can do this up to 24 hours prior to the flight but never later than 15 minutes before departure. You still need to go to the gate agent to get a jumpseat pass from the agent.
- JetBlue: JetBlue has a special procedure to list. In order to relieve the burden on their gate agents, they require you to list by phone. Before calling, go to https://trueblue.jetblue.com/web/trueblue/register/?intcmp=hd_join and make a TrueBlue account. You will be given an account number. Call 1-800-JETBLUE and tell the customer service agent you are a pilot and want to list for the jumpseat. They will ask for your TrueBlue account number. Like riding on your own carrier, you will still need to check in at the gate and get a jumpseat pass.
- Cargo Carriers: Yes! you can ride on cargo carriers like FedEx, UPS, Atlas, ext. Why would you want to do that? Well, besides being a really cool experience, cargo flies at night and they may be your last chance to get home. All cargo carriers have special procedures and require you to list earlier than you would for passenger aircraft. Here are some websites to guide you through the process:
- If riding on cargo, DO NOT BE LATE! You will delay their flight and they will black list you. Also, remember just as you cannot overnight a package on Sunday, you can’t overnight yourself either.
3. Acquaint yourself with the laws of jumpseating:
These are the most important:
- Jumpseating is legally a privilege not a right. Boarding rights are not controlled by the gate agent, but rather by the captain. The gate agent determines if a seat is available. If there isn’t a seat in the back, they will see if the jumpseat is available. If you are offered any seat; either jumpseat or a seat in the back, you must ask the captain of the flight for permission to board. They can deny you for any reason: perhaps they don’t want you up front because it’s going to be a busy flight, maybe they have a beef with your airline, or maybe they just don’t like your shoes. Either of these reasons are legally acceptable for a captain to deny you boarding. This is why jumpseat chivalry is so important, which I will discuss more in my next post.
- As a jumpseater, you are called an ACM which stands for Additional Crew Member. This means that most of the FAA rules that would apply to you if you were working the flight apply to you on the jumpseat. You need to have your pilot’s license and a current medical on your person while jumpseating. Captains should ask you to present theses documents along with your company ID and jumpseat pass. You also need to make sure that you are in compliance with the eight hour bottle to throttle rule for alcohol consumption.
For more information, visit: http://jumpseatinfo.org
Now that you have your travel tools, know how to list for flights, and know the rules, its time to make a travel plan. It is important you understand what jumpseating really is and what you are getting yourself into. As a jumpseater, you are not handed over a nice shiny ticket for seat 10A like everyone else. You are flying space available, meaning you only get on if there is a seat. If you have traveled with the airlines lately, you probably have realized that there aren’t many extra seats on most flights. This means you might get bumped off a flight. This harsh reality means as a jumpseater, you need defensively plan your trips so you don’t get stuck someplace or miss work. Following are the rules of engagement I have used to keep myself from getting stuck:
- Always have another flight that also works with your travel needs to backup your first.
- A single leg flight is always better than a double leg flight to somewhere because there’s no chance of getting stuck in the middle.
- Flights into a hub in the morning (when pilots go to work) and flights out of a hub in the evening (when pilots go home) always stink. Avoid them if possible, especially if you live in a popular commuting city. Of course, these are the flights you probably need to take ha!
- Flights from hub to hub of the same airline are always terrible.
- If going into the New York during a snow storm, expect the worst. If a lot of flights are being cancelled, try for a mainline flight over a regional flight. If the airline has to start prioritizing slots, they will cut the regional flights before the mainline flights carrying more people.
- Flights out of a city where an airline is headquartered are usually bad. This is because a lot of the non-flight crew employees working for that airline get flight benefits. Examples are flying on American out of Dallas or JetBlue out of Salt Lake City or NYC. Atlanta is epically bad for non-Delta pilots. I have seen flights with three opened seats have over 100 stand-by hopefuls. Good luck fighting the 20 delta pilots already listed days ago for the jumpseat.
- New York City area airports are the worst in the country for cancellations. Chicago is a close second, but is not nearly as bad.
- Going to or from vacation spots in the summer is usually bad, but the jumpseat is typically opened.
With your travel plans made, the final step is to learn about standby priority. To explain why standby priority is important, let me paint the wonderful scenario that seasoned jumpseaters are all too familiar with:
Finally, it was a brutal four day trip, but it’s your last leg. Preflight checks complete…complete. You pull your clearance and see that dreaded word, EDCT. Looks like the storm system that was supposed to miss your destination airport by 100 miles managed to land right on top of it. This destroyed the flow and ATC gave you a two hour delay. You check your new arrival time… 20:30… and your last flight home? Yep, 21:00. Looks like you are going to get some exercise today! So you make it to base perfectly as scheduled at 20:30. You run as fast as you can trying not to push over grandma and finally make it to gate C10. And what do you see? The gate agent is on the loudspeaker looking for volunteers with “flexible travel plans” to give up their seat in exchange for moolah because of the weather and over bookings.
Then you remember, that doesn’t matter! I’m a pilot! I can ride the jumpseat! As you walk up to the gate agent with that mix of arrogance and pride, you look to your right and see a sight that shakes you to the bone. It’s a white shirted mainline four striper. A rare species in the regional terminal. Your eyes connect much like two lions in a cage they both know isn’t big enough for the both of them. There is an unspoken, but well understood message between the two of you: This CRJ isn’t big enough for the both of us partner. The deciding factor in who reigns supreme and who has to find a comfy airport bed somewhere in this case is standby priority.
So, what factors affect standby priority? Below is the usual hierarchy:
- First, most airlines give priority to their own pilots first on top of all other factors. This means that on a Spirit flight, priority will be given to a Spirit pilot over a United pilot.
- Non-revenue standby passengers are usually given priority to jumpseaters. Sounds unfair right? Always make sure to check-in on your company’s non-rev website/app to take advantage of this.
- Next is check-in time. Priority is usually given on a first come, first serve basis. If you know a flight will be full, try to check-in ASAP.
- Company seniority is sometimes taken into account on certain carriers.
So there you have it! You now know more about jumpseating than most of the newbies and even a lot of the more seasoned pilots out there. It’s now time to stretch your wings and ride that magical extra first class seat up front. Check back in next week for the rest of the story!